This weekend, women's volleyball makes its ABC debut. Here's how it got there.
A Q&A with ESPN Coordinating Producer Ericka Galbraith.
Hi, friends! So, tonight is a big night for women’s sports: We’ve got the women’s volleyball Final Four semifinals on ESPN. At 7:00 pm ET, No. 1 Pittsburgh will face No. 1 Nebraska. About 9:30pm ET (or 30 minutes after the end of the first semifinal), No. 2 Texas will face No. 1 Wisconsin.
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The final will be broadcast live on ABC (!!) on Sunday, December 17, at 3pm ET. This is the first time that women’s college volleyball has been broadcast on ABC, but it will be the third NCAA women’s championship to be broadcast on ABC this year, following in the footsteps of basketball and gymnastics.
In April, ABC averaged 1.02 million viewers for its broadcast of the NCAA gymnastics national championship and 9.9 million viewers for its broadcast of the NCAA women’s basketball national championship. Volleyball has some big shoes to fill, but the sport is more than ready to meet the moment.
That’s because women’s volleyball IS the moment right now. This season, the sport has set records across the country — from the 92,003 fans that packed a football stadium to watch the Nebraska women’s team play Omaha in August, to the 1.66 million who tuned in to watch a regular-season game between Wisconsin and Minnesota on FOX.
Ahead of women’s college volleyball’s big weekend, I spoke with Ericka Galbraith, the coordinating producer at ESPN who oversees volleyball, about the her journey to this job, the process of getting the national championship game moved to ABC, and what’s in store from a production standpoint this weekend. Enjoy!
A Q&A with Ericka Galbraith, ESPN coordinating producer of volleyball production
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Power Plays: First off, how did you get into this role, and was there something specific that drove you to work with women’s volleyball?
Ericka Galbraith: So, I’m originally from Nebraska.
PP: Well, I guess we can stop there, that answers that! (Laughs)
EG: It was meant to be! I've been with ESPN now for 24 years. I actually worked the College World Series right out of college, and was in Connecticut for 14 years, and for the last 10 years I’ve worked out of our Charlotte office. I've held a variety of different role, but a couple of years ago I was working on college football and the woman who oversaw volleyball moved on to Sports Center. And so when the opening came about, I jumped at the opportunity, truly. I left working on college football in order to take over volleyball because I had such a passion for it. People are like, “Oh no, you got moved off of football.” I’m like, “No, no. This is a final destination for me.”
PP: It's such a big weekend with both of the semifinals on ESPN and then the final on ABC. What can viewers expect production-wise this weekend?
EG: Once we found out we were on ABC, it was game on. We pulled out all the stops and made sure to bring in the best in order to have the best coverage possible. Right now we've got 24 cameras, we've got crowd mics, we've got 19 different replay sources, super slo-mo, and about a 100-person crew to make sure that we bring fans the best coverage possible. And then we're pushing boundaries as much as we can from an access perspective. So, you know, in the locker rooms, and making sure that we bring the viewer at home into the environment here because with a packed house it's gonna be wild. We couldn't be more excited.
PP: How was the decision to move this final to ABC made?
EG: I have oversight of all production. So anything that that hits our screen is my responsibility and I have accountability for it. But I can tell you that we've worked closely with our programming counterpart — specifically, I work with Dan Margulis as the senior director of programming. Throughout the course of the season, I think there were 20 matches that were upgraded to higher-profile windows. And as we were putting different broadcasts in these higher-profile windows, what we're seeing is there's just an increase of audience. The audience viewing is is there! So I think from a programming perspective, that team worked really hard to say, “Hey, if the audience is there, then it's a safe bet and a very good one to put this on ABC.” So again, we couldn't be more excited. I think it's tremendous for the sport. And we're ready to go.
PP: We saw the women’s national championship game in basketball do so well on ABC, and then gymnastics did well on ABC, too. How much does that help the cause?
EG: Certainly it helps from our perspective!
PP: Why do you think volleyball is having such a moment right now?
EG: You know, I think there are a few things that happened. One being the Volleyball Day, Nebraska Day, with 92,000+ fans showing up and capturing the nation's attention. I think that kick-started our season. And then again with the elevations to higher profile windows, that really helps. While it's tricky to navigate our coverage against NFL and college football, it's a really good alternative viewing experience. Fox has showed that, Big Ten has showed that, and certainly ESPN and ABC want to show it as well.
PP: What are you most proud of as far as how ESPN has grown its production of volleyball over the past few years?
EG: One of my proudest moments would have been last year, we had an all-female announcer crew on the national championship for the first time, with Courtney Lyle, Holly McPeak, and Katie George calling the game. And I think that that was a pivotal move in the landscape of trying to capture your curious, your casual, and your core audiences.
The Fifth Set, which we launched last year, is another really proud moment. The Fifth Set is a linear and ESPN+ broadcast of a whip-around show that covers all first and second-round matches in the NCAA tournament, similar to softball, similar to college baseball. We really pushed to have this because it gives our viewers an opportunity to watch all of the games and for us to go to the most compelling match at the most compelling time. We had, I think it was 20+ hours of live broadcasting with two different teams where we're able to speak at a high level and and look at the big picture of the tournament, while capturing some of the most compelling content that was on the screen at any given time.
PP: What storylines are on your radar for the Final Four?
EG: I think Texas — defending national championships being back, but with a brand-new team as an underdog — is is an interesting story. With Pitt being back to the national semis for the third time in a row, I think they've got something to prove. And then Wisconsin and Nebraska are both powerhouses. So it's really exciting for us to have the four teams that are in the national semifinals at such a high caliber of play. I think that the matches will be really, really competitive and really compelling. So you know, again, I go back to the casual, the curious, and the core fans. I think there's something for everyone in the matches that are about to be played.